5 Problems That Ruin Most Superhero TV Shows
Superhero shows have been a popular staple of television since George Reeves punched out criminal masterminds and jaywalkers alike in Adventures Of Superman back in 1953. That said, many of the modern ones manage to run into the same problems that plagued their predecessors. When it comes to to TV adventures, there are some issues that not even being bulletproof can stop. Like how ...
The Seasons Are Always Too Long For The Stories
Netflix and Marvel recently ended their partnership, a team-up that began with the extraordinarily hyped Daredevil in 2015 and ended with them silently putting Jessica Jones Season 3 out in 2019 and hoping that someone, anyone might find it. And while these shows had their high points (Jessica Jones had the best first season of any Netflix show I've ever seen, superhero or otherwise), they all suffered from the same issue: They were just too damn long.
Even the truncated season of The Defenders, which took the normal 13-episode order down to eight, felt about twice as long as it needed to be. Many of these unnecessary hours were made up of what I call "ninja episodes," as both Daredevil Season 2 and Iron Fist Season 1, in an effort to build to The Defenders, were force-fed "karate guy fights other karate guys" scenes until they became bloated and unrecognizable. But it also came in the form of sheer repetitiveness, as after the death of Mahershala Ali's incomparably cool Cottonmouth in the seventh episode of the first season of Luke Cage, the show seemed to flop over on itself to repeat a similar story in the season's second half.
Shows like Gotham and Smallville had way more episodes per season, and tried to remedy this with "monster of the week" episodes. And for shows that come out each week instead of in one binge-able bundle, this helps, because you're never around for long enough to think "Huh, this small Kansas town sure does have a lot of mutated creeps in it." But in this case, it's the human subplots that suffer. You motherfuckers don't know how good you have it. I spent years watching Clark Kent stumble around telling Lana Lang how much he loved her. YEARS. I could've hung out with my family or played with my dogs or gotten hobbies. I could've had a life.
Obviously, we're a little spoiled by other mediums. Superhero movies tend to be around two and a half hours, which is long enough to tell a satisfying story, but short enough that your bladder doesn't combust in the theater. And superhero cartoons tend to be around 20 minutes, while comics tend to have around 20 pages. But in the case of live-action TV, it feels like the storylines are written and set in stone before the number of episodes is given, forcing writers to say "Fucking 13 episodes on six episodes' worth of plot? Ninjas it is, then."
"Grounding" A Superhero Presents Its Own Problems
One of the initial draws of the Netflix series was that they were "street-level" superheroes. We'd gotten attempts at telling more "realistic" stories in the genre before, but even The Dark Knight was based around a goddamn billionaire. No, these protagonists would actually be grounded. And to this day, I think that's a pretty noble idea. I'm much more inspired by a guy who does good but can barely pay his rent than by a guy who does good and then flies in his robot suit back to his big Elon Musk McMansion.
If only they'd kept up with it.
The problem with "grounding" an inherently fantastical story is that there's a constant game of tug of war between your intentions of establishing realism and the siren song of the comic book roots. One says "Hard-boiled crime storriiiiiiesss" and the other whispers "Super stuffffffffffff." And the first season of Jessica Jones does a great job with balancing it. She has immense strength, but her villain has inflicted so much horrifying psychological trauma on her that just walking over and snapping his shitty little neck becomes difficult. That's how you tell a real, grounded human story in a universe with thunder gods and Hulks.
But Season 2 introduces us to her superpowered mother, and in Season 3, her best friend gains superpowers that are similar to hers. And these don't really come from any place of thematic depth, other than doubling the amount of parkour in the show. I already mentioned Daredevil's foray into mystical ninjas after a fairly realistic first season of Vincent D'Onofrio tantrums, but perhaps the most egregious example is Luke Cage's "Judas Bullets." Obviously, you need a way to raise the stakes for the bulletproof Luke Cage, but inventing magic weapons that use metal from the alien invaders in The Avengers is somehow both the most boring AND the most outlandish way to do it.
Admittedly, the "grounded" superhero is a tricky tightrope walk. And when someone tells me "I'm gonna focus on the 'man' in 'Superman,'" it sounds so boring that I want to tear my ears off and throw them at the writer. But when done well, like in Jessica Jones, they can be some of the best stories the genre has ever known.
The Villains Are Never Allowed To Be Comic Book Villains
In the latest (and last) season of Jessica Jones, we meet the serial killer Gregory Sallinger. Now, comic fans know this dude as "Foolkiller," a guy who looks like Tony Stark invented a gimp suit and wants to kill people for vague "Ohhh, the world is too materialistic" reasons. And while we get Sallinger waxing poetic like a daytime soap opera Dexter, at no point does he get even a hint of a costume or a nickname. He's just some guy. This happens a lot in superhero shows. Rather than allow villains to potentially look cartoonish, we get a lot of archenemies in jeans.
In the last season of Daredevil, the new villain is Bullseye. Of course, god forbid we actually call him "Bullseye" or give him his own suit (in Daredevil, he mostly wears Daredevil's suit, which looks cool until you realize that, to make sense of the one-on-one fight scenes, the actual Daredevil has to wear his old sweaters). Obviously, allowing for big, colorful outfits would go against the "grounded" part of these series, but if a guy goes blind and has all of his senses become super-heightened and he goes by the name "Daredevil," I'm not going to cry foul when another crazy person decides "Hey! And call me 'Bullseye!' Look at my cool shirt!"
It's such a frustrating one foot in / one foot out approach. Now, The Dark Knight isn't perfect, but I appreciate the fact that at the very beginning, one of the goons asks, "Why do they call him 'The Joker'?" That's all you need. It shows that you embrace the character but don't necessarily want your serious bro Christian Bale saying outlandish villain monikers while he's stumbling around his terrorism metaphors.
And the DC shows on the CW, like Arrow, Flash, and Supergirl, also do a decent job with it, but they're also not trying to maintain any illusion of realism. They'll have a mess of CGI show up, call it "Gorilla Grodd" a thousand times, and hope that you're into it. Basically, it comes down to what you think your audience will accept. And trust us, we've watched Jessica Jones tear down doors with her bare hands. We'll be alright if her foe gets a nickname.
They Rarely Get The Most Out Of Their Setting
New York City is a fantastic place to set a show. And even though no superhero film will replicate my personal experience in NYC ("GUYS, THERE IS AN ANIME BLU-RAY SHOP NINE MINUTES AWAY FROM THIS BAR!"), there's a reason that everything from inane sitcoms to deeply emotional crime thrillers are placed there. Sadly, it's hard to find a superhero series that takes full advantage of everything the city has to offer.
Sometimes they get close. You can tell that the people behind Luke Cage took great care, especially in the first season, to try to replicate the atmosphere of a neighborhood like Harlem. However, since most of the plots involve bad guys who are wealthy and good guys who aren't wealthy but can still somehow afford housing you can fit an entire film crew in, America's most famous city is turned into a montage of different-sized apartments. Even Sallinger, who by all means should get the Texas Chainsaw Massacre treatment and have a creepy murder lair, just gets a normal basement and a living room that looks a lot like it sprang from an IKEA commercial.
NYC is so much more than dimly lit bedrooms, big bland open spaces where villains think about how villainous they're being while listening to classical music or looking at art, and sidewalks. Just look at a series like Mr. Robot, which manages to make NYC look equal parts fresh and beautiful and grimy:
Meanwhile, in Daredevil, you get the sense that Manhattan is mostly hallways. And don't get me wrong, the movie Oldboy instilled within me a deep-rooted love of violent hallway brawls, but I get significantly less enamored with them when they happen seven times. Part of this feels like an attempt to hide a lack of screen combat training (hard to criticize choreography when it's mostly close-up fists and pushes), but the end result is that New York City feels about five feet wide.
I get that some of this is budget-related. Filming in only the most dynamic and awe-inspiring parts of the city would leave little room for catering or special effects or actors. But by writing themselves into a corner, they don't really give the heroes a chance to leave the apartment.
Comic Characters Don't Fit On Live-Action TV
In comics, if a character is getting stale, you retire them for a while. Hey, they're fictional. It's not like they have demands. And then, after a few years have passed, you bring them back in a fresh new form. People aren't sick of them anymore because they haven't seen them in a while. You can't really do this on a TV show, though.
On TV, where the opening theme is full of images of the main cast members turning toward the camera and smiling, you're pretty much stuck with your characters for as many years as you can pay them to be around. The bread and butter of many shows are their stars, and they're willing to keep the name brands around, even if it drags the character arcs out into mind-numbing eternity.
Characters like Lex Luthor or the Penguin or Bullseye weren't meant to be the focus of entire seasons. They weren't built that way. And while you can tell stories about their early years or base the crux of their growth around their relationship with the hero, eventually audiences are gonna start wondering just why Lex sucks so bad at this whole "evil genius" thing. That's why comics give characters breaks. If the Joker appeared in every Batman comic, he wouldn't be the Clown Prince of Crime; he'd just be a loud dude in facepaint who's really, really good at getting his ass kicked.
That said, you can't just tell an actor "Hey, we're gonna shelve ya for a few years, but we'll call you when we want you to make a grand dramatic return." They have to eat, so they're gonna go be on other shows, get tied to other contracts, and be unavailable when you want your big "Return of Metallo" story. If they're able to get a character to come back years later, it's completely by luck or writing a massive check. So far, the only superhero show that's been able to replicate the comic book villain format is the '60s Batman show. But then again, that amazing show is full of secrets that mankind will never truly understand.
Daniel Dockery is a writer and editor for Cracked. Follow him on his big, dumb Twitter.
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